The French pronouns is a very vast topic.
A pronoun is a small word that generally replaces a noun, but it could also replace an adjective or even a clause.
> Where is my pen? – It’s on the table.
> Are they tall? – Yes, they are.
> I'm world champion, but tomorrow, I won’t be anymore.
As you may know already, every noun has a gender in French (masculine or feminine). Thus, a pronoun usually “agrees” with the gender and the number (singular or plural) of the noun it replaces.
> Où sont Léa et Cindy ? – Elles sont à la cuisine.
There are many different pronouns in French, but we can distinguish 6 main categories:
1) Personal pronouns
|Subject||Reflexive||Direct Object||Indirect Object||Stressed|
The subject personal pronouns are the ones you use all the time just like in English, so I won’t really talk about them in this article. But the subject pronoun “on” is quite particular, so I refer you to this article for more information.
The reflexive pronouns are the one used with the pronominal verbs.
As you may notice, the main changes concern the third person singular and plural.
Direct Object and Indirect Object pronouns
The point I want to emphasize here is the difference between the Direct Object personal pronouns, and the Indirect Object personal pronouns, because that’s where most people get confused.
In order to know which pronoun you should use to replace a word (noun, adjective, clause) in French, you need to know if it’s a Direct Object or an Indirect Object.
The Direct Object in a sentence, is a thing or person which receives directly the action of the verb. In French schools, we learn to find this Direct Object by asking the question “What? ” (quoi ?) or “Who? ” (qui ?)
(Je mange quoi ? = le gâteau) > (What am I eating? = the cake). So here, le gâteau is the Direct Object, and you will use the corresponding masculine Direct Object pronoun to replace it: “le”.
The object is indirect when there is a preposition in front of it, generally the preposition à (and its contractions) or pour. That means the Indirect Object is a thing or person “to or for whom/what” the action of the verb occurs. So you just have to ask the question “To/For Whom/What?” (à/pour qui/quoi ?) in French:
(Je parle à qui ? = à ton père) > (Who am I talking to? = your father). So here, ton père is the Indirect Object, and you will use the corresponding Indirect Object pronoun to replace it: “lui”.
Note that the Direct Object and Indirect Object pronouns are placed in front of the verb (unlike in English).
However, there are some verbs followed by Indirect Objects which don’t allow to use an Indirect Object pronoun. Instead, if this object:
- is a person: you will use a stressed pronoun after the verb and the preposition.
- is a thing: you will use the pronoun “y” behind the verb.
Here are some of these verbs:
|avoir affaire à, to have to deal with||s'habituer à, to get used to|
|avoir recours à, to have recourse to||penser à, to think of/about|
|croire à, to believe in||renoncer à, to give up / to renounce|
|faire allusion à, to allude to||revenir à, to come back to|
|faire appel à, to appeal to / to adress||songer à, to think/dream of|
|faire attention à, to be careful with / to pay attention to||tenir à, to be fond of / to care about|
Indirect Object = a person
(You CANNOT say: Je leur pense.)
(You CANNOT say: Tu dois lui faire attention.)
(You CANNOT say: Je me lui suis habitué.)
Indirect Object = a thing
(You CANNOT say: Je leur pense.)
(You CANNOT say: Tu dois lui faire attention.)
(You CANNOT say: Je me lui suis habitué.)
One last point concerning Indirect Objects: it’s also possible that they are introduced by the preposition “de” (and its contractions). In this case, if the Indirect Object:
- is a person: you will use a stressed pronoun after the verb and the preposition “de”.
- is a thing: you will use the pronoun “en” behind the verb.
Indirect Object = a person
Indirect Object = a thing
> Do you remember the injuries on my leg?
Note that when the Indirect Object is a person, French people often make the mistake to use “en”, even though it’s a person. For example you might hear: “Est-ce qu’il s’occupe bien de sa mère ? – Oui, il s’en occupe tous les jours. > Does he take good care of his mother? – Yes, he takes care of her every day”.
As evidenced by their name, the stressed pronouns are used to emphasize on the person they refer to. They exist in English as well, but their use can be quite different in French sometimes. Here are some of the main ways to use them:
1) To insist on who you are talking about
This is typical of everyday spoken French, and not written French. Indeed, you actually don’t need to use the stressed pronouns to understand the meaning of these sentences. By the way, in English, you wouldn’t use these pronouns here, that’s why I put them in brackets.
If I remove the pronouns in the French sentences, the English translation would still be:
But it’s very common that French people add the stressed pronouns (at the beginning or the end of the sentence) to be very clear about who they are talking about.
2) After “C’est” (or sometimes “Ce sont”)
3) After a preposition (and hence after the verbs that don’t allow an Indirect Object pronoun as we have seen above).
4) To talk about several persons
Note that in English, you use the subject pronouns in this situation. You don’t say: “You and her are so cute” or “Matthieu and me are students”.
In French you CANNOT say: “Matthieu et je sommes étudiants”.
5) After a conjunction (like “mais, ou, et, donc, or, ni, car…”)
6) After “que” in comparisons, or negations (“ne … que”)
7) After the preposition “à” to indicate possession
8) With “…-même” to put even more emphasis
Note also the rarer indefinite stressed pronoun “soi” which corresponds to “on” and which is thus used for unspecified persons. The equivalent of “soi” is “one”, “oneself” or “everyone”.
> One must do certain things by oneself.
> I suppose one cannot arrest oneself.
It’s a common mistake for English speakers to pick the wrong pronoun or put it at the wrong place in the sentence. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal, French kids also take a lot of time to truly master them. In fact, French people mainly learn how to use these pronouns thanks to constant repetition and correction from their parents, teachers... At some point, it becomes automatic, and they just say what sounds right to their ear.
So guess what? If you want to sound fluent with the pronouns in French, the only way is to learn them like the French. You have to repeat, make mistakes, repeat again, make even more mistakes… Of course, it’s important to know the theory that I explained above, but trust me, when you have a real conversation in French with a native, you don’t have time to ask yourself “Wait, was that a Direct or Indirect Object? Oh, I think it was a Direct Object, and it’s feminine, so I have to use “la” to replace it”.
My advice would be to try the one that sounds right to you, and always ask the person to correct you if it’s wrong. But not everyone will correct you when you make mistakes, and that’s why it’s essential to practice with a language exchange partner or a tutor/professor at the beginning.
2) Possessive pronouns
In English, the possessive pronouns are: mine ; yours ; his/hers/its ; ours ; yours ; theirs. They replace nouns which are possessed by someone or something.
Once again, the difficulty in French concerns gender and number: the possessive pronouns change depending on the gender and number of the noun they replace
|mine||le mien||la mienne||les miens||les miennes|
|yours||le tien||la tienne||les tiens||les tiennes|
|his/hers/its||le sien||la sienne||les siens||les siennes|
|ours||le nôtre||la nôtre||les nôtres||les nôtres|
|yours||le vôtre||la vôtre||les vôtres||les vôtres|
|theirs||le leur||la leur||les leurs||les leurs|
CAREFUL : note also a big difference with English: in French, the gender and number of the possessor are not important. The possessive pronoun (just like the possessive determiner: “son, sa, ton, ta, mon, ma…) must agree with the noun possessed.
Don’t forget to always put the right article as well (le, la, les), they go together with the possessive pronouns.
Moreover, note that contractions with the article are always possible:
à + le = au ; à + les = aux ; de + le = du ; de + les = des
> No, not your cat, I’m talking about mine.
> I lost my keys, so be careful with yours.
> I want a grave next to his/hers.
3) Demonstrative pronouns
The demonstrative pronouns in English are: this one, that one, the one(s), these ones, those ones. They replace nouns which were mentioned previously in a sentence.
Just like the possessive pronouns, they change according to the gender and number of the noun replaced
Also, we distinguish between “this one and that one”, or “these ones and those ones” by adding the suffixes -ci (here, nearby) and -là (there, further away).
|Simple Forms||With Suffixes (-ci ; -là)|
|Singular (masculine and feminine)||celui & celle||celui-ci||celle-ci|
|Plural (masculine and feminine)||ceux & celles||ceux-ci||ceux-là|
|Indefinite Demonstrative||ce / c’||ceci||cela|
> Hey Simon, you prefer this one or that one?
> Do you like these red socks? -No, these ones are better.
Sometimes you don’t have a suffix after the pronoun, instead, you either have the preposition “de” or a relative pronoun.
> Which train do we take? –The one of 10 o’clock is cheaper.
> You know, the ones from the shop next to the post office.
> Oh, the one you told me about?
> The ones I’m interested in are bigger.
Careful with the word “celui”. Remember that in modern spoken French, people obviously like to speak faster. So something that is very common is to hear French people say “ssui-ci or ssui-là”. The “e” and the “ l ” disappear.
Indefinite Demonstrative pronouns
The indefinite demonstrative pronouns are quite interesting, because we use them all the time, but we don’t really realize it. They are ce, ça, and ceci/cela.
They are invariable (yes!), and they replace something abstract (a situation, a concept…) or unnamed, unspecific…
- “ce” is the one you use all time with the verb être, but it most of the time becomes “ c’ ” because of the elision to avoid the clash of vowels.
- “ça” might be used even more, because it’s the one used with any other verb than être.
- “ceci and cela” are equivalent to “ça”, but more for formal speech or written French. They are also the contractions of ce + ici = ceci (this), and ce + là = cela (that).
4) Relative pronouns
Relative pronouns are extremely useful, because just like in English, they link clauses together in a sentence. A clause is basically what makes a sentence: it contains a subject, a verb and usually an object.
For example, here are two clauses: “Where is the lady?” and “She lives next door.” I can link them with a relative pronoun: “Where is the lady who lives next door?”. The 2nd part of the sentence (who lives next door) is called the subordinate clause and it’s introduced by the relative pronoun.
In English, the relative pronouns are: which, when, where, what, who, whose, whom, that.
In French, there are only five of them: que, qui, dont, lequel, où.
But because French and English grammar are different, French pronouns don’t have only one English equivalent. One French relative pronoun can have several translations. Here is a summary of their possible functions and translations:
|Que||Direct Object||that, what, which, whom,|
- Indirect Object (person)
|what, which, who, whom, that|
|Dont||- Object of "de"
- for possession
|of which, from which, whose, that, including|
|Lequel||- Indirect Object (thing)||what, which, that|
|Où||- for place or time||when, where, which, that|
In order to master the relative pronouns in French, it’s important that you understand the differences between Direct Object and Indirect Object which I explained above in this article. You should also know what is the Subject in a sentence (= the person/thing which performs the action of the verb).
Que and Qui
Many beginners in French believe that “qui” only means “who”, and “que” means “that”. But that’s not true, when “qui” is a relative pronoun, it can also mean “that”, “what” or “which”.
The difference between que and qui has to do with what part of the sentence they replace.
- “Que” is used to replace the Direct Object (person or thing) in the subordinate clause.
(J’ai acheté quoi ? = la maison) > (What did I buy? = the house). So, la maison = Direct Object, and I replaced it with the Direct Object pronoun “ l’ ” in the 2nd clause.
- “Qui” is used to replace the Subject (person or thing) in the subordinate clause.
> This invention is useful. It comes from China.
> This invention which comes from China is useful.
“Qui” also replaces an Indirect Object referring to a person after a preposition in the subordinate clause.
> This guy is funny. You eat with that guy.
> This guy with whom you eat is funny.
> The girl is beautiful. You spoke to this girl.
> The girl to whom you spoke is beautiful.
However, when the preposition is “de”, then you need to use the relative pronoun “dont”.
And if the Indirect Object refers to a thing, you need to use the relative pronoun “lequel”.
- So “dont” replaces any person or thing after the preposition “de”.
> I saw the doctor. You told me about him.
> I saw the doctor (whom) you told me about.
> It’s the forest. They are afraid of this forest.
> It’s the forest (that) they are afraid of.
- Since the preposition “de” can express possession, “dont” can as well. If the thing possessed is not a person, you usually translate using “with” in English, because if you translate literraly, it’s a bit weird in English.
> Here’s the neighbor. I repainted the neighbor's room.
> Here’s the neighbor whose room I repainted.
> It’s the car. The car wheels are broken.
> It’s the car with the broken wheels.
(literraly: It’s the car of which the wheels are broken).
- “Dont” can also replace a part of a group.
> There were many cakes. There was a strawberry cake.
> There were many cakes, including a strawberry one.
> I have many colleagues. Two of my colleagues are British.
> I have many colleagues, two of whom are British.
As a relative pronoun, lequel (and its variations) replaces an Indirect Object referring to a thing after a preposition in the subordinate clause.
|à + lequel =||auquel||à laquelle||auxquels||auxquelles|
|de + lequel =||duquel||de laquelle||desquels||desquelles|
> This chair is small. You are sitting on this chair.
> This chair on which you are sitting is small.
> These books have disappeared. She’s thinking about these books.
> These books which she’s thinking about have disappeared.
> The museum will close. I work in this museum.
> The museum in which I work will close.
> The cinema is expensive. I live near the cinema.
> The cinema near which I live is expensive.
Note that with the last sentence, even though there is the preposition “de” (du cinéma), I used the pronoun “lequel” (duquel) and not “dont”.
It’s because we use “dont” only when “de” is by itself. But when it’s part of a prepositional phrase (such as: près de, near ; à côté de, next to ; en face de, in front of…), we use duquel.
I’m sure you know that “où” means “where” as an interrogative pronoun, and also “where” as a relative pronoun:
> The city where I live has no skyscrapers.
You can find it after prepositions sometimes:
> The country where she comes from is at war.
> The road from where I came is blocked.
However, you might be surprised, but as a relative pronoun, “où” has another meaning: “when”. This can be confusing, because “when” is usually “quand”, but only as an interrogative pronoun or as a subordinating conjunction. When you need a relative pronoun to express “when”, you must use “où”.
> There was a moment when I could not take it anymore.
5) Interrogative pronouns
There are 3 interrogative pronouns in French, and you already know them, because they can also be relative pronouns: que, qui and lequel.
To be honest, I don’t even understand why “que” and “qui” are called interrogative pronouns, and not interrogative adverbs (like quand, comment, pourquoi, où, combien). But I still know how to use them, and that’s what matters. So it’s the same for you, you just need to know how to use them.
As interrogative pronouns, the difference between “que” and “qui” has to do with whether they refer to a thing or a person. But you’ll see, it gets much more complicated (and confusing…) whether that thing/person is the subject or the object of the sentence…
“Que” = “What”. It refers to a thing.
When “what” is the subject of the question, you must use:
- “qu’est-ce qui + a verb in 3rd person singular”
> What’s more important than your life?
When “what” is the object of the question, you can use:
- “que + the inversion” (formal) or “qu’est-ce que” (common) or “statement + quoi” (casual)
Note that after a preposition, “que” changes into “quoi” all the time:
“Qui” = “Who” or “Whom”. It refers to a person.
When “who” is the subject of the question, you can either use:
- “qui + a verb in 3rd person singular” or “qui est-ce qui + a verb in 3rd person singular”
Qui est-ce qui veut de l’eau ? > Who wants water?
When “whom” is the object of the question, you can use:
- “qui + the inversion” (formal) or “qui est-ce que” (common) or “statement + qui” (casual)
Note that “qui” can also follow a preposition:
Here is a summary about the interrogative pronouns "que" and "qui":
|Subject||Object||After a preposition|
|Que = thing||qu'est-ce qui||- que
- qu'est-ce que
|Qui (who/whom) = person||- qui
- qui est-ce qui
- qui est-ce que
Lequel basically means “which one” as an interrogative pronoun. That means it replaces “which + the noun”, which is “quel + the noun” in French.
As we have seen before, the difficulty with lequel is that it agrees with the gender and number of the noun, and also with all the possible contractions with the articles “le” and “les”.
> To which conclusion did you come to?
> Near which neighborhood does he live?
6) Indefinite pronouns
The indefinite pronouns replace unspecific nouns (persons or things, ideas…).
|un(e) autre||another one||quelques-un(e)s||some / a few|
|plusieurs||several||tout le monde||everyone|
Many of these indefinite pronouns have an equivalent indefinite adjective. Careful, their function is not the same: a pronoun, as always, replaces a noun. So the indefinite pronoun replaces the indefinite adjective + the noun.
Indefinite pronouns have quite a few rules and characteristics which apply to some of them, but not all of them. So here I will just give you these characteristics and the pronouns that are concerned.
1) These indefinite pronouns must always have an antecedent.
(meaning a previously mentioned/implied noun).
--> un autre, d’autres, certains, chacun, plusieurs, quelques-uns
> Here is the letter, and another one will come soon.
> I have many friends, and several are very famous.
2) These indefinite pronouns express a quantity.
(so when they are the object of the verb, they must be preceded by the pronoun “en” and replace the noun).
--> un autre, d’autres, certains, plusieurs, quelques-uns
> Do you have a pen? – Yes, I have several of them.
> Do you want cookies? – Yeah, I'll take a few.
3) These indefinite pronouns can be followed by “d’entre nous/vous/eux/elles” or with “de + the noun”.
(Careful: in both case, the verb always take a 3rd person conjugation).
--> certains, chacun, plusieurs, quelques-uns, un/l’un
> Some of us must confess the truth.
4) These indefinite pronouns always take the 3rd person singular conjugation of the verb.
--> un autre, chacun, quelque chose, quelqu’un, quiconque, tel, tout, tout le monde, un/l’un (because they are all singular)
And these ones take the 3rd person plural:
--> d’autres, certains, plusieurs, quelques-uns, (because they are all plural)
> Some want to try at least once.
5) “On” is the indefinite subject pronoun.
> One can only be happy with a partner.
More information about « on » here.
6) When “quelque chose” and “quelqu’un” are followed by an adjective, you must put the preposition “de” in between.
> I have something important to tell you.
7) “Soi” is the indefinite stressed pronoun.
> It's always better to have your passport with you.
> It’s perfectly normal to work for oneself.
8) These indefinite pronouns have to agree with the gender of the noun they replace.
--> Un autre, certains, chacun, quelques-uns, un/l’un
> He wants this book? –No, he wants another.
> He wants this cup? –No, he wants another.